Stairs, Sweat, and Tears (San Diego TOWERthon Race Recap)

This weekend was an emotional one. I competed in an event that was far more difficult than anything I’ve ever done before, and finished with a swirl of feelings that I’m still sorting out. But I do know this: I survived. And this race has probably forever changed how I think about myself.


The race was the 2014 San Diego TOWERthon (benefiting Toussaint Academy, a partner agency of Father Joe’s Villages, that works with homeless and at-risk teens). It was held at 550 Corporate Center, a 20-story building in downtown San Diego.


The TOWERthon was actually two events, and I did both. First was a fairly standard sprint to the top. Then came the actual TOWERthon, which was unlike any other stair climb race I’ve done. You’re given two hours to see how many times you can climb the building (stairs up, elevator down). Whoever completes the most climbs in 2 hours wins. Whereas most races are over in 10-20 minutes, this was a hardcore endurance event. I’ve never come close to climbing stairs for 2 hours before in any capacity, let alone a race situation. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the TOWERthon scared the crap out of me.

RELATED CONTENT: Check Out My List of Races and Events That I’ve Competed In!

Before I could tackle the TOWERthon, though, I had to complete the sprint. Because the TOWERthon was weighing so heavily on my mind, I barely gave the sprint much thought at all. It was a small group of racers, including tons of highly-ranked elite competitors (many of whom are my teammates and friends), and I just got in line, busted my butt in the stairwell, and got to the top. Here are my stats from the sprint:

  • Time: 3:01.9
  • 8th in my division (out of 9 men aged 30-39)
  • 24th among all men (out of 32)
  • 29th overall (out of 52)
  • My average pace was 9.1 seconds per floora new personal best! (Very exciting, yes, but not surprising, because at 20 stories, this was also the shortest sprint race I’ve ever done.)

I’m super happy with these results. I can climb a 20-story building in 3 minutes! 

After the sprint, there was an hour to recover and prep for the TOWERthon. A ton of friends were competing, so I spent the time catching up and chitchatting, and that took my mind off the Herculean task that awaited. A few photos:

Jeff, Jason and me. Jeff and Jason finished 3rd and 2nd in the sprint, respectively. Way to go!

Jeff, Jason and me. Jeff and Jason finished 3rd and 2nd in the sprint, respectively. Way to go!

Me and Cindy, who finished 3rd overall in the sprint.

Me and Cindy, who finished 3rd among women in the sprint! Woo-hoo!

Nandor David

Me and Nandor. Forget about the two handsome men in this photo, and check out my bulging bicep! Damn!

Soon, it was time to line up for the TOWERthon. One person entered the stairwell every 10 seconds, and as I awaited my turn, I repeated my strategy over and over in my head: Pace yourself. No sprinting. Walk (don’t run) to and from the elevator. Focus on consistency. Don’t burn out too quickly.

RELATED CONTENT: Watch My Stair Climb Video That Puts You In the Middle of the Action!

I entered the stairwell around 9:03am and started my first climb. The nerves I’d been feeling for months went away, because I was now actually doing it. I felt strong. I double-stepped, used the handrails, and efficiently negotiated the landings.

The first few climbs actually seemed easy, and I avoided looking at my watch, so I could focus on the climb instead of the time. I found my rhythm and stuck to it. I noticed that the event was very well organized and executed. There were volunteers everywhere: passing out water and towels every few floors, wiping down sweaty handrails and steps, calling and loading the elevators (which greatly helped minimize wait time). I had a “” sign pinned to the back of my shirt, and soon some volunteers were cheering me on by name, which felt really great. The stairwell had dozens of handmade posters, and I roped in a volunteer to take this photo of me with my favorite:


Trust me, I’d be smiling if I weren’t panting! The final two words are “workout” and “tapes!” I emailed this photo to Richard when I got back to Los Angeles.

At the top, there was a table with water and little cups filled with a greenish/yellow liquid. I grabbed the mystery liquid and chugged it, thinking it was Gatorade. It was pickle juice! I learned that a shortage of sodium can cause cramps, and since you sweat out sodium, pickle juice is an effective way to get lots of salt back into your body.

The TOWERthon is designed so you can take breaks whenever you want – all you have to do is head out to the plaza, where there’s drinks, snacks, and places to sit. You can re-enter the stairwell when you’re ready. I stayed moving, going straight to the stairwell from the elevator, except for one two-minute break near the halfway point, when I went out to wolf down a protein bar and 20 ounces of water.

RELATED CONTENT: Climbing the Tallest Structure in Las Vegas

I was mid-way through my 10th climb when I crossed the 1-hour mark. I was tired but not exhausted. My heart was pounding (as high as 175 during the climbs, and 145-160 in the elevator), but with the event now half over, I felt encouraged to keep going. That third half-hour, though, was when I really hit the wall. I went from feeling tired to feeling utterly depleted with the snap of a finger. I no longer had the strength to double-step, so I switched to single stepping. I looked at my watch more frequently, and the minutes seemed to barely advance. Sweat was pouring off my forehead in continual streams, like a faucet.

And yet, I kept going. I had worked too hard for stop early. I lost count of how many climbs I had completed, so I drew inspiration from my friends, some of whom I passed, but mostly, they were passing me. They weren’t giving up, so I wasn’t going to either. I had long felt the burn in my quads and calves, but by this point my entire body ached with every movement. Every inch of my skin and clothes were soaked with sweat – I looked (and felt) like I had just gotten hosed down.

I felt a renewed sense of commitment during the final half hour, because ohmigod I was almost done! I wanted to finish strong, but there wasn’t anything left. Every flight of stairs seemed like a mountain. Every step was a victory. Every landing was welcomed and celebrated. I soldiered on, floor after floor. The rule is that if you enter the stairwell before you hit the 2-hour stopping point, you’re allowed to finish that climb and it will count. I entered the stairwell my final time with four minutes to go. I’m not sure how I made it to the top, but I did.

I had no idea how many climbs I had completed when I staggered out into the plaza afterward. I couldn’t focus on anything except finding a place to lie down. I picked a shady spot next to a planter and collapsed.


Within seconds, the tears came. I was crying. I was a sobbing, blubbering mess. My friend Madeleine came over, concerned, wondering was what wrong, and all I could sputter out was that it was all good things. All happy tears.

There was a lot racing through my mind. I was hurting. I was completely wiped out. I was happy it was over. I was glad I finished. But there were much larger feelings that really got the waterworks flowing.

Pride. Not only did I finish, but I conquered this race. I kept moving, through the exhaustion, through the pain, and I did not give up. I stuck to my strategy as best as I could, only took one itty-bitty little break, and powered through. I had been so nervous and scared, but I trained hard, and I refused to let those nerves or fears get the better of me.

Self-Worth. I realized something that hit me like a ton of bricks: I stayed positive throughout the ENTIRE race. There was not one demeaning or self-critical thought. Not once did I tell myself that I wasn’t working hard enough or climbing fast enough, or that I should stop, or that I was going about it wrong, or that my performance was a disappointment. For someone with a life-long history of major self-esteem issues, this was huge. Enormous. Powerful. As important to me as finishing the race to begin with.

Control. I’ve felt something at previous races that I’ve never been able to articulate until this race, and it’s the idea that I’ve never felt so in control of my body, my strength, and my abilities.  I collapsed against that planter and reminded myself that it’s not just the guy on the right that completed the TOWERthon, it’s also the guy on the left:


That’s me, in 2009, around 160 pounds heavier than I am now. I can tell you from experience that when you’re that size, there’s lots that feel out of your control. Now, though, it’s a whole different story. If I can rock out the San Diego TOWERthon, than I have the courage, the strength, the fortitude, and the determination to do whatever I want to do. That, my friends, is so empowering that it gives me shivers when I think about it.

I spoke with my dad later than night, and after telling him about the race, he said to me: “There’s no end to your physical exploits, is there? You’ve become the most accomplished athlete on either side of our family… and among all the people I know, for that matter.” That sentence stuck with me long after I hung up the phone. If you were to say that to me in 2009, I would’ve thought you were an escapee from the loony bin. But now that’s true, and it’s impressive, and it’s all because of my own actions. MY training. MY dedication. MY goals. MY perseverance. I am in control!

My 2014 San Diego TOWERthon stats:

  • Total Number of Climbs: 17
  • 9th place in my division (men aged 30-39)
  • 24th place among all men
  • 34th place overall (out of 188)

My splits for each climb:

  • 3:41 (1st climb)
  • 4:07 (2nd climb)
  • 4:25 (3rd climb)
  • 4:34 (4th climb)
  • 4:49 (5th climb)
  • 5:11 (6th climb)
  • 5:20 (7th climb)
  • 5:43 (8th climb)
  • 5:16 (9th climb)
  • 6:00 (10th climb)
  • 6:25 (11th climb)
  • 5:56 (12th climb)
  • 6:50 (13th climb)
  • 6:32 (14th climb)
  • 6:38 (15th climb)
  • 7:44 (16th climb)
  • 6:52 (17th climb)
  • TOTAL CLIMBING TIME: 1:36:03 (which means I spent roughly 24 minutes in the hallways, lobby, and elevators)

Add together the sprint and the TOWERthon, and I climbed that 20-story building 18 times. That’s 360 total stories and a whopping 7,596 steps!

For comparisons’ sake, 360 stories is the same as climbing the 108-story Willis (formerly Sears) Tower THREE TIMES, plus climbing a 36-story building, too!


And, not surprisingly, I’m still tired and sore. But even though my body aches and I feel sluggish, my heart and mind are soaring. I took on one of the most grueling events in a sport known for its difficulty… and I crushed it!



18 Responses to Stairs, Sweat, and Tears (San Diego TOWERthon Race Recap)

  1. Congratulations!!!! I am so happy for you. What’s next on the list?!

  2. Charlotte Cavaluzzi says:

    Awesome job David! You are such an inspiration! Keep it up David!!

  3. You ARE Awesome!!! So happy for you!

  4. Jeff Dinkin says:

    Really phenomenal accomplishment, my athlete friend!

  5. Dana says:

    Wow, Wow and Wow!! Congratulations! You are such an inspiration! Can’t wait to hear what is going to be your next adventure.

  6. Janet says:

    David, you are AMAZING! You are like Superman, leaping tall buildings, and all! That “guy on the left”, he killed it! You should be so proud!

  7. Nurse Karen says:

    I cried when I read this…you’ve done what few achieve: maintaining perseverance. You seem to have finally embraced your own self-worth. For those of us who love you–precious, Wonderful YOU–, this accomplishment caused my heart to Leap for Joy! xoxo~

  8. G.M. Grena says:

    I’m very happy for you, & truly impressed with how well you did, David! Congratulations on your remarkable achievement!

  9. Jason Ellis says:

    Wow, what an accomplishment. Hope to see more!

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